Up, Up and Away: Lessons on Education from Comic Books, and Getting Them into Classrooms

Ashley Harrington teaches high-school students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. With a bit of time throughout the week to teach specialized classes, Harrington has brought her love of comic books into the classroom. They've been a hit. Students are reading them as fast as she can distribute them, which is why she's trying to raise money via GoFundMe (the page is called "Comics in the Classroom") to provide class-sized sets of comics for her students and to create a comics library at the school.

Eric Sandy: What brings about the foray of comics into your lesson plans? And, real quick, how long have you been teaching here at Cleveland Metro?

Ashley Harrington: This is my first year at Cleveland. Before this I was teaching college. I have my master's from Florida Atlantic University, and I was teaching down there. In my master's program, I had a professor — actually the chair of my master's thesis — who was really into comics. He had us read Watchmen and all those things. Comics are something that are taken seriously at every level.

ES: Watchmen is incredible. I read that in college, and I was struck by how deep it is. That is, of course, some pretty high-level stuff. What grade are you teaching again?

AH: I'm teaching 9th-graders, so we probably won't be doing Watchmen (laughs).

ES: What's come up on the syllabus so far?

AH: I've only been teaching this class for a few weeks so far. We meet during a time that our school calls "acceleration," so during that time they have all these classes that are high-interest: They have jewelry-making, there's a weight-lifting class. I also teach a film class some days during the weeks. One of the things that has been working really well has been Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, which is Miles Morales, rather than Peter Parker. It was released in about 2012, after the death of Peter Parker in that particular universe. Kids have been responding to that really well.

ES: So is that a matter of ordering a class set of these comics?

AH: They should be in this week, actually. Right now I have one copy. When it's on my desk, sometimes kids come up and start looking through it. I have a kid who comes almost every day and asks if the books are here yet. We'll have them really soon, so that should start this week. We also did the short comics that came from the 9/11 release that DC did a couple years ago. One of them had Static Shock, and a lot of kids are familiar with him from the TV series.

ES: What's the learning curve like when teaching comic book style?

AH: I gave them a bit of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. We started with the really basic stuff like, "What are comics?" Some of them have never read comics before; some of them have loved comics their whole lives. He uses a definition that's like, "juxtaposed sequential art that tells a story or entertains." That's really effective, because it's a nonfiction comic that introduces how comics work. They're not just pictures and words. They do something more when you put them together, and they have their own conventions that you have to get familiar with. For instance, where do you start reading?

ES: Maybe that mirrors a central theme here. Do you see comics as entry points for students who may not be terribly interested in getting into reading in the first place?

AH: There are some kids who say, "Oh, I don't like reading." And I always hate that! I know everyone can love reading if they find the right thing to read. So I've seen some kids who get so into Spider-Man, kids who seem like maybe they haven't had the best experiences with reading in the past. They all love Spider-Man, because the Spider-Man movies were out recently and they're familiar with it.

ES: I don't mean to zoom out too much, but kids today do grow up in such a visual culture.

AH: Absolutely. This year, 9th-graders have art; they don't have physical education or music this year at our school. It's kind of a good time. They were doing political cartoons earlier in the year in their art classes. Many of them are very familiar with visual culture. They have a visual literacy that not everyone realizes or appreciates as being valuable. Once you key into that — you know, they can read images really well. And when you put words to images, it allows them to work on their reading.

ES: In the back of my mind I'm thinking about the idea that as students read more, in general they'll be better prepared and informed as, say, future voters.

AH: Definitely. I would eventually like, maybe for older kids, to get to V for Vendetta. Anything that motivates kids to read and makes them aware of all these different things is great. Spider-Man has that whole, "With great power comes great responsibility." That opens up a whole discussion about what power is and who has power. That makes kids more prepared to enter adulthood really soon.

ES: Could you elaborate on the specific goals of your GoFundMe efforts?

AH: I'm aiming for $3,000. Comics are expensive. They're more expensive than if I were to order class sets of novels. Although, these are small classes — maybe 10 to 20 students. I want to get a variety of class sets, so we can go through different things. I also want to start a library, so that kids can pick out their things. They all have different interests. As a class, I'd like to read Maus or Persepolis. I've had a couple students express an interest in manga, and that's what I liked to read when I was in school. A lot of the students love that kind of art.